Independence Day would seem to be an especially ill-chosen time to denounce what passes for patriotism in the United States. But maybe not, because on this day Americans express their patriotism — in truth, little more than worship of statism and militarism — in extraordinary displays and celebrations, thus presenting more prominent targets to those who have no sympathy for patriotism as it is commonly understood in this country.
I suppose that already some readers are thinking, “Higgs is an America hater. Why doesn’t he do us all a favor and get the hell out of this great country while he still can?” Anyone who is thinking such a thought, however, is utterly mistaken. I do not hate this country, though I do despise the governments — local, state, federal, and hybrid — that now rule it.
Bill Clinton once felt moved to scold the people who took offense at some of the government’s especially monstrous recent crimes by saying, “You can’t love your country and hate your government.” Au contraire, Slick Willy. I am living proof that you can indeed. I do so in every waking minute of every day, and sometimes in my sleep, too. To be perfectly frank, I have trouble in understanding how any decent, halfway honest person who loves America cannot hate its governments, inasmuch as by their laws, their judicial decisions, their regulations, and their daily conduct they prove themselves a standing reproach to every ideal embraced by the men who shed their blood to establish this country’s independence from the British Empire. Do you recall those first patriots’ declared devotion to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Can anyone today look upon the pack of scoundrels, liars, thieves, and (in all too many cases) murderers who control the governments of this great country and feel anything but the most wrenching revulsion?
But if I feel this way about our glorious government leaders, how can I then maintain that I love the country? It’s really easy. I simply recognize that everything I love about it — and there is a great deal — stands to its governments more or less in the same relation that matter stands to anti-matter. To qualify for my affections, a person, place, or thing almost by definition must exist (or have existed during its time) outside the sphere of government and its manifold evils.
Thus, I feel no shame about loving many of the physical places of this country, from coast to coast. Who can look out across Puget Sound toward the Olympic Mountains at sunset and not fall in love with the place? Who can resist the tall, slender pines and the sturdy, spreading live oaks, draped with Spanish moss, that adorn my present home in southeast Louisiana? The deserts of the Southwest are often strikingly beautiful, as are, in different ways, the Rocky Mountains, the Cascades, and the rhododendron forests near the Delaware Water Gap. In these places and a thousand others, a man may feel that he is fortunate to call these magnificent exhibits of God’s creation part of his home country.
The America I love embraces not merely places, scenes, and settings, however, but innumerable persons whose accomplishments down through the ages glorify their country and testify to its people’s courage and humanity. If you seek an example of honorable bravery, then consider how William Lloyd Garrison, at great risk to life and limb, persisted in publishing an uncompromising abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, declaring: “I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.” Or remember Harriet Tubman, for whom her own heroic escape from slavery was not enough, so she returned again and again to the slave region, ultimately helping hundreds of others to gain their freedom via the Underground Railroad. Do you want an Independence Day event to remember? Then forego the vacuous speeches by politicians bloviating about U.S. soldiers’ heroics in wars (most, if not all, of them unnecessary bloodbaths brought about by wicked, ambitious politicians) and recall instead July 4, 1939, when the great Lou Gehrig, though already suffering from the disease that would soon take his life and now bears his name, walked slowly to the microphones in Yankee Stadium and said, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
When I think of the America I love, I hear the language I love — American English in its countless accents, cadences, and idioms. Not that I claim it’s the best language anyone can speak, but it’s the one I’ve heard from birth, studied with care, and enjoyed immensely as I’ve listened to a great variety of its speakers, from illiterate men I worked with as a youth on the ranch to accomplished poets and scholars I’ve been fortunate to hear. For six months in the early 1970s, I lived in England. At first, I was amazed at how articulate the English people were: it seemed to me that they commanded their spoken language with a precision that hardly anyone in my native country could match. Yet, after a while, I began to miss American English. The English of England felt increasingly cold and stiff. I found myself longing for the cozy, idiomatic, slang-ridden speech I had absorbed as an American in America. My mother and father were people of little education but a wealth of idioms and folksy turns of phrase. Prizing my education in formal English, I grew up to speak differently, yet, as a young adult, when I would call my parents on the telephone periodically, my wife would remark that after a minute or two on the phone, I began to “talk like a damned Okie.” Fine with me. To this day, I am likely to lapse into this kind of speech when I tell a long-winded personal story.
Yet the language of this country is not always English, and I cherish the other kinds of speech that Americans use, as well. In the little San Joaquin Valley town (Firebaugh, California) near which I grew up from second grade through the twelfth, I would walk along the main street on hot summer days and bask in the smell of stale beer and the sound of música ranchera that spilled out of the open doors of the many Mexican bars that lined the street (air-conditioning was not a part of that time and place). The barbers who cut my hair, like many other people who lived there, spoke a combination of Spanish and English, often mixing the two languages in a single sentence and passing seamlessly back and forth from one language to the other. Theirs was a kind of American language, too, and today when I recall its sounds, I get a warm feeling. Spanish is a beautiful language in its pure form, but for those of us who grew up immersed in Spanglish, it also makes a lovely sound — and a peculiarly American one, to boot. It is something to cherish in a world gone looney with stupid, ignorant ethnic hostilities.
If I am such an obvious America hater, why do I esteem so highly the country’s legends and folkways? You don’t expect an al-Qaeda agent to cherish Mark Twain’s story of the celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County or the legend of Paul Bunyan and the Blue Ox Babe. And what commie would invariably smile at the thought of John Henry, by any standard a remarkable American from birth:
When John Henry was a little bitty baby
Sitting on his daddy’s knee
Well, he picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
He said, This hammer’s gonna be the death of me
This hammer’s gonna be the death of me!
When John Henry was a little bitty baby
Sitting on his daddy’s knee
He picked up false consciousness and surplus-labor speed
He said, Wage slavery’s gonna be the death of me
Wage slavery’s gonna be the death of me!
Ugh! That is so un-American!)
As the old Chevy jingle put it, we Americans love baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Well, for me, three out of four ain’t bad. (Any love I ever had for General Motors went down the drain long ago as its incompetent management and rapacious labor union drove it to ruin — of which there is none more ignominious than the recent government takeover.) At my age, with my decelerated metabolism, I must go very lightly on the hot dogs and apple pie, but life would scarcely be worth living without baseball, the thinking man’s great American sport. As a boy I enjoyed countless hours of playing the game, or just hitting, catching, and throwing the ball when not enough boys were available to play a game, and as an adult I have followed baseball pretty steadily throughout my lifetime. Hardly anything brings me more pleasure than sitting around with my old friend Henry Leng (we go back to 1954 together), recalling the great teams, great players, and great moments — not to mention the veritable mountain ranges of statistics to mull over. This country does not need Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama. Life would go on just fine without them and their ilk to tell us what to do. But life in this country would be vastly diminished without baseball.
Unlike U.S. imperialism, in which this country’s armed forces set out to intimidate or kill the various allegedly troublesome brown people of the earth, the “imperialism” of baseball shows us what great gains we may realize through peaceful relations with others. America gave baseball to the world, and the world has returned it to us embodied in the great Latin American and Asian players who now elevate the quality of play so gloriously. Aggressive U.S. foreign relations have earned this country the hatred and enmity of the world’s people, whereas the spread of baseball has brought us Vladimir Guerrero and Ichiro Suzuki.
By this time, I hope that the reader understands what I’m driving at: loving America has nothing whatsoever to do with loving its governments and their actions. Moreover, everything about this country that truly warrants a free person’s love is antithetical to the operations of its governments. The country worthy of our love most emphatically does not consist of its disgusting politicians or of its hired killers (soldiers) or of its petty tyrants acting as regulators, police, and other wielders of unwarranted — and all too often unchecked — coercive power over their fellows. Above all, the country worthy of our love does not consist of its blessed wars. The most that anyone might truthfully say of any of these wars is that it was a necessary evil. For my part, I will not go even that far. In my view, every one of them was an unnecessary evil, including the American Revolution that some people may happen to recall amid today’s pseudo-patriotic bacchanalia.
The good that this country embraces does need defense, of course, but the protection it most urgently requires is defense against those who falsely purport to be its guardians and saviors.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. He is also a columnist for LewRockwell.com. His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society.